I’ve been using the word “Luddite” wrong

Like most people, I have accepted the ‘given’ definition of Luddite as someone who fears technology. I even, being the word-geek that I am, knew the term originated from machine-breakers in the early ninetieth century. The reasons the Luddites broke new automated looms was because the feared and hated new devilish technology, right?


The Luddite riots, which happened off and on from 1811-1816 and then reoccurred in agriculture during the 1830s, were ACTUALLY about socioeconomic substance, inequality, starvation, and unionized labor resistance:

The Luddites were a group comprised mostly of textile artisans who, in the early 1810s, correctly saw the rise of efficient machinery like the power loom as a threat to their way of life. But contrary to their depiction in popular culture, they weren’t afraid of the technology itself. They were acutely aware that the work they had been trained to do by hand, the craft they had refined over the course of their entire lives, was about to be made obsolete by a machine. A machine that would do a worse job, but for much cheaper.

So some decided to fight back, in an effort to preserve fair pay and what they believed was a healthy, sustainable mode of living. Taking up a moniker inspired by an apocryphal labor hero known as Ned Ludd, his anonymous acolytes sabotaged factory equipment under the cover of night, first in Nottingham, then in Yorkshire and throughout England …

“[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring,” Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology, citing the work of influential historian Lewis Coser. But “their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a ‘nuisance value’. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers.” The Luddites weren’t technophobes, then. They were labor strategists.

This was also around the time of dismal wheat harvests in the UK, and the price of food meant that men, women, and children as young as 5 were at risk of starving to death even as they worked 60+ hours a week. I don’t know about y’all, but that looks like a damn good reason to throw a fit to me.

The British Government, full of landed rich people devoted to preserving the status and wealth of rich people (sound familiar?) acted quickly by raising taxes on the uber-rich and cutting down on the amount of money they allotted to royalty so that they could subsidize bread prices and by passing laws guaranteeing a living wage. I’m just joking, of course. They actual passed a law making breaking machinery punishable by death and sending troops in to squash the uppity poor people who thought they had value as humans. Silly poor people!

Lord Byron, the poet, had just started as a member of the House of Lords when the vote was held, and he made a rational and impassioned plea for the textile workers and luddites that go soundly ignored in favor of ‘kill-em-all’ legislation. It was a humdinger of a speech, though. Here’s one of the best parts of it:

“When we are told that these men are leagued together, not only for the destruction of their own comfort, but of their very ‘ means of subsistence, can we forget that it is the bitter policy, the destructive warfare, of the last eighteen years, which has destroyed their comfort, your comfort, all men’s comfort;—that policy which, originating with ” great statesmen now no more,” has survived the dead to become a curse on the living unto the third and fourth generation! These men never destroyed their looms till they were become useless, worse than useless; till they were become actual impediments to their exertions in obtaining their daily bread. Can you then wonder, that in times like these, when bankruptcy, convicted fraud, and imputed felony, are found in a station not far beneath that of your Lordships, the lowest, though once most useful portion of the people, should forget their duty in their distresses, and become only less guilty than one of their representatives ? But while the exalted offender can find means to baffle the law, new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt. These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”

The violence employed by the Luddites did have some positive effects for the workers. Scared of more violence, it  jolted “industrializing society into recognizing that measures had to be taken to address worker concerns and stir up mass popular support, it seeded an enduring body of critical study on the topic … [and as] a cautionary tale of what can happen when the specter of automation stokes fears of mass joblessness in an uneasy public—a phenomenon already taking root today.”

Moreover, the Luddites show that even when you lose the battle, a riot or two can win the metaphorical war for human rights. There are several periods and incidents of violent protest that changed the world for the better, including:

The battle for the eight-hour working day in the U.S. included such violent outbursts as the 1886 Haymarket riot, while a key moment in the fight for labor’s right to organize trade unions came at the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, when thousands of striking coal miners waged open warfare on local law enforcement and the U.S. military. “Food riots” were also common throughout the U.S. during the Great Depression, fueling the social crisis that spurred the New Deal.

There’s lots more. Including the Stonewall Riots, the New York Race Riots, the Watts Riots, the Pullman Strike (which became a riot when troops moved in), and the Suffragette Riots.

Thanks to riots, which Martin Luther King, Jr.  called the “the language of the unheard”, stuff like 40 hours work days, weekends, unions, minimum wage, women’s votes, civil rights, and the LGBTQ movement all happened.

I would like you to bear that in mind, just in case Cincinnati turns into a Ferguson/Baltimore Mash-up in the next few days. During a routine traffic stop by a University of Cincinnati Police Officer, a 43 year old black man named Sam Dubose was shot and killed, and the footage of the murder is so egregious that the police are preparing for riots when they release the video.  “Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said he’s seen the unreleased footage from a University of Cincinnati officer’s body camera during last week’s fatal shooting and “it’s not good.” …“We’re concerned clearly. We’re concerned about what could happen in our city. We’re hopeful that the people of this great city are reminded that we do things right and that even when an officer may have done something inappropriate that it will be dealt with in an appropriate fashion,” Blackwell said.”

We can only hope that if it does go down like the 2001 Cincinnati riots over the death of Timothy Thomas, then it will also result in another round of police reform. Hopefully, it won’t take burning buildings to hold Sam Dubose’s killer accountable.

One thought on “I’ve been using the word “Luddite” wrong

  1. Great article, but what started the revolt by the Luddites was the machinery itself. They tried , and were probably successful in some cases, to destroy the machines.

    And as we know, the English language is constantly evolving and so has the word Luddite. Any modern dictionary will list it as “someone who is afraid or opposes technology.”

    So I put to you that anyone who opposes the new meaning of Luddite is indeed a Luddite.

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